Category Archives: Reviews

The Austen Girls

Would she ever find a real-life husband? Would she even find a partner to dance with at tonight’s ball? She just didn’t know.
Anna Austen has always been told she must marry rich. Her future depends upon it. While her dear cousin Fanny has a little more choice, she too is under pressure to find a suitor.
But how can either girl know what she wants? Is finding love even an
option? The only person who seems to have answers is their Aunt Jane. She has never married. In fact, she’s perfectly happy, so surely being single can’t be such a bad thing?
The time will come for each of the Austen girls to become the heroines of
their own stories. Will they follow in Jane’s footsteps?
In this witty, sparkling novel of choices, popular historian LUCY WORSLEY brings alive the delightful life of Jane Austen as you’ve never seen it before.

Bloomsbury

This is Lucy’s fourth historical novel for Bloomsbury Children’s Books but the first (to my shame) I’ve read, I definitely want to pick up the others now though. It reads like an Austen novel, while managing to keep the story moving at a pace for younger modern teens to keep engaged. The setting is very evocative with real historical touches, I’m a little bit disappointed it isn’t an entirely true story! She very kindly answered some questions for TeenLibrarian:

What prompted you to discover Jane Austen led such an interesting life?

Well, on the face of it, Jane Austen lived quite a boring life. No one knew that she was a famous novelist, because she kept it secret. She never got married or did wild things, and she died quite young. And yet I think her life was terribly interesting, because she was so brave to decide that she wasn’t going to marry a rich man. (She did accept one proposal, but broke it off the next morning.) Instead, she became one of the very few professional female novelists of Georgian times. I did a lot of research about her real life, and I discovered that she gave out agony advice to her two young nieces as they grew up and had to decide themselves who they were going to marry. So I took the three characters from history, and spun a story around them! It’s only in my imagination that Jane Austen becomes a detective, or the rather lovely word that the Georgians used: a ‘thief-taker’.

Which is most satisfying: writing for TV, writing non-fiction, or writing fiction?

What I really like is a mix. Writing for TV is a very collaborative effort – a whole team works on it very closely together. Writing non-fiction is very slow and painstaking, you have to get all the facts right. By comparison, writing fiction is like flying! All you have to think about is the story. It’s nice to be able to switch between all three. (There’s another kind of writing that I do as well: writing very clear blocks of text for guidebooks or exhibitions or webpages in my work as a museum curator at Hampton Court Palace. That’s another challenge all of its own.)

When you started writing fiction did you originally intend it to be for a teen audience or did it evolve that way?

I decided around the age of 11 that I wanted to be a historian, and one of the reasons that I made that decision was through reading historical novels. So I wanted to write books that maybe … just possibly … the person who’s going to be doing my job and who’s going to be the curator at Hampton Court Palace in twenty years’ time might enjoy.

If you were given unlimited time & resources to research & write about a different person or event, who/what would you choose?

I would love to write about Agatha Christie, the detective story writer.

What is your favourite kind of book event to take part in?

I like going to a school or a festival with my box of props and dressing up outfits, and acting out silly scenes from history.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I’m always reading about five different books for different research projects, and usually they wouldn’t be of any interest to anyone else apart from the five people who are researching in that tiny corner of history. At the moment, though, I have been burning my way through many Agatha Christies – a nice relaxing thing to read when we’re all feeling anxious!

Lucy Worsley is, by day, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens. By night, she is a writer and presenter.

Thank you Bloomsbury for sending me a proof copy, and Lucy for answering my questions!

The Austen Girls is out TODAY!

Agent Zaiba Investigates – extract!

Determined to be the world’s greatest detective, Zaiba is always on the lookout for a crime to solve. She knows everything there is to know about running an investigation – in theory…

At her cousin’s Mehndi party, Zaiba gets her first challenge: to discover the identity of the VIP staying at the same hotel. With the help of her best friend Poppy and brother Ali, Zaiba puts her sleuthing skills to the test. And when the celebrity’s precious dog disappears, along with its priceless diamond collar, it’s up to the trio to save the day!

Stripes
Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds, cover & internal illustration by Daniela Sosa

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds is the first in a new #UKMG series by Annabelle Sami.

Zaiba is a fantastic protagonist with a great team behind her. I love that her aunt is so involved in the story, even though the children basically work alone it is clear that they have plenty of adult support, the grownups aren’t disposed of to give the kids more space but instead the adults give them sensible freedoms (that they definitely make the most of) and actually listen to them! The plot races along, with funny and thoughtful dialogue and a well imagined setting – it is just great fun. The background of a Mehndi party gives us loads of food references and a chance to get to know the whole family, excellent scene setting with just the right level of description without interrupting the flow of the action.

There are a number of full page black and white illustrations in the book to highlight key events, as well as lots of smaller vignettes and chapter headings throughout. Daniela Sosa has done a brilliant job of really bringing the characters to life and keeping the readers eyes on the page.

I’m loving the resurgence in detective kids, and even more loving the diversity of all these new sleuths, Zaiba herself is British Pakistani. I can’t wait for book two, I want there to be as many Zaiba stories as there are about Poirot…and I can easily envisage a CBBC TV series of Agent Zaiba!

Annabelle Sami, author of the Agent Zaiba Investigates series

To give you a taste of what the book looks like (gorgeous), and how thrilling it is (very), I’ve been given an extract to share with you. There’s also a game to play at the end…

Download an extract and game here

Huge thanks to Charlie from Little Tiger for sending me a review copy.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds is out now!

The Sky is Mine – Blog Tour!

In a house adept at sweeping problems under the carpet, seventeen-year old Izzy feels silenced. As her safety grows uncertain, Izzy knows three things for sure. She knows not to tell her mother that Jacob Mansfield has been threatening to spread those kinds of photos around college. She knows to quiet the grief that she’s been abandoned by her best friend Grace. And, seeing her mother conceal the truth of her stepdad’s control, Izzy also knows not to mention how her heart splinters and her stomach churns whenever he enters a room.

When the flimsy fabric of their life starts to unravel, Izzy and her mum must find their way out of the silence and use the power in their voices to rediscover their worth.

For fans of Sara Barnard, Louise O’Neill and E. Lockhart, The Sky is Mine is a powerful exploration of rape culture and domestic abuse, and a moving story of women learning to love themselves enough to demand to be heard.

Rock the Boat

The Sky Is Mine is a stunning debut, firmly in the YA+ bracket with its unflinching discussions of (TW:) rape, coercive behaviour, domestic violence and abuse. It is absolutely terrifying in places but funny in others, an extremely emotional read, the characters are so well written and real that every decision is convincing and doesn’t feel contrived. The way it discusses toxic masculinity and, frankly, how awful teen boys can be without realising they (or their friends) are doing something wrong, is something that could spark brilliantly useful conversations – I hope as many boys read it as girls.

Izzy, the protagonist, has a passion for Desert Island Discs, a radio programme during which the guest chooses 8 ‘discs’ and explains why those songs are important to them, so on this blog tour Amy has done the same!

Finish the F**king Book ~ Stella Duffy

There’s no rule that your discs have to musical. They just have to be special. And this is certainly that. I met Stella Duffy about twenty years ago when, having read her fantasically different Singling Out the Couples, I went on an Arvon writing retreat on which she her wife Shelley were tutors. Only they weren’t just tutors. They gave so much of themselves that when I returned home and people asked me how the course had been, there was really only one way to describe it: life-changing. And Stella continues to be life-changing for me. I messaged her on my 36th birthday promising to write every day. This vow was rooted in the hope that in promising to fulfil my goal to someone I wouldn’t want to let down, I would be more likely to achieve what I’d so far failed to do: write a novel. In that same message, I joked about wishing I’d captured a video of her telling me, a couple of years previously, that it’s all well and good having lots of ideas, hopes and dreams, but the only way to make those come to fruition was to sit down and finish the f**king book. If I had that video, I said, I’d watch it as a daily reminder of what was required. I didn’t expect her to respond. But she did. Not just with an email but with a video – exactly like the one I wished I’d made – of her telling me to “finish the f**king book”. That video changed my life. I watched it daily and, as such, I sat down, did what Stella told me and finished the fucking book. A book that got me an agent that got me one step closer to a deal. That’s the thing with Stella, her you-can-do-this cheerleading bouys and ripples with consequences of life-changing proportions. I want to be like Stella. Generous. Bolstering. Kind. Listening to this would be a reminder of the importance of perseverance and, so too, the brilliance of people. People like Stella. #BeMoreStella

Amy Beashel
Amy Beashel, author of The Sky is Mine

THE SKY IS MINE is published by Rock the Boat, an imprint of Oneworld Publications, and out now!

Thankyou to the publishers for a review copy

Always Here for You by Miriam Halahmy

14-year-old Holly is lonely. Holly’s parents are never around after Gran’s Crisis and best friend Amy has moved across the Atlantic to Canada, loved-up with her new boyfriend, Gabe. Holly has no-one to hang out with at school apart from moody Ellen and misfit Tim – Madison and the bezzies barely notice her.

Home alone in Brighton with no-one to talk to, Holly is at rock bottom. That is, until she finds Jay. Caring, funny and with so much in common, Jay is the perfect guy. They chat online, but Holly knows to be careful, she s heard the horror stories. As they grow closer and closer, chatting with Jay is all that makes Holly happy. Mum and Dad s rows get more intense and Amy’s radio silence continues; the only one who understands is Jay. As Holly lets her guard down, is Jay all he seems? Is Holly in too deep? And is it too late? 

Miriam Halahmy constantly takes my breath away! One of her strengths as an author is that she creates believable characters that the reader will sympathize with and care about and then puts them in realistic, troubling situations and because we have become invested in these fictional characters we (at least me anyway) have to follow the story to its end.

Although aimed at a younger teen market, Always Here For You is a must read book for all ages. Miriam’s prose draws you in and keeps you focused on Holly’s story, and although, as the reader can see what is happening we are powerless to do anything except keep reading and hope that everything will work out.

As an adult who works with young people I have been through training about online grooming, I am aware of what to look out for in young at risk people and I also know how easy it can be to miss the telltale signs when you are distracted. Always Here For You works as both a teen thriller and a warning, showing how easy it can be for a socially isolated young person to get caught up and groomed, and for those who should be taking care of her to miss what is going on.

While reading Always Here For You I felt helpless but was unable to stop! Miriam had me completely hooked! At the close I felt like I had been holding my breath. The final chapter of diary excerpts was a fitting postscript to the tale and gave us an idea of what happened beyond the end.

Always Here for You is published by Zuntold Books and will be released on February 11thSafer Internet Day it will make a fitting centerpiece for a display with a focus on safer social media practices.

India Smythe Stands Up by Sarah Govett

I owe Sarah a huge apology! This review was supposed to hit the site on September 30th – unfortunately my daughter, being no respecter of the best laid plans of mice and men decided to arrive a bit early (an dmad those plans go awry).

Sarah I am sorry! In creating India Smythe you have gifted the world with one of the funniest protagonists since… well… ever! She fits in with Bridget Jones and Georgia Nicolson! I already knew that you were a brilliant author, The Territory trilogy taught me that; but pivoting from a futuristic dystopian eco-thriller to a contemporary comedy, well honestly that caught me off-guard.

Writing comedy is hard, writing actually funny comedy is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle. India Smythe is Sarah’s lightning in a bottle!

India is a wonderful protagonist, flawed yet engaging, with some really wicked one-liners including: It’s never good to stand next to perfection. Especially when perfection is a complete bitch.

Her voice as narrator came through with crystal clarity while introducing the reader to her family, her life and her friends, frenemies and potential love interests.

This is very much a teen novel but suitable for readers of most ages, the writing is so sharp you may cut yourself on the humour. Trite as it may sound, this is a book that, once you have started reading you will find very hard to put down.

If you work in a library then this is a book you need to press into the hands of your teen readers. It is the perfect antidote to the grey, grim times in which we find ourselves. India Smythe Stands Up is light, funny and will swiftly carry you through India’s travails. I challenge readers of any age to not find some part of themselves in India or her family, and empathise with her as they laugh uproariously at her misadventures.

14 -year-old India Smythe has caught the eye of Ennis, the hottest boy at St Joseph’s. But nothing’s ever easy when you’re dealing with horrific teachers, a dad who’s convinced every boy is a ‘sex pest’, a best friend who talks you into embarrassing makeovers to look good on Instagram and the odd kissing-induced hospitalisation. And does India even want Ennis? Or should she risk social relegation and go for the orchestra geek with the extra-long forehead who she actually enjoys talking to?

India Smythe Stands Up was written by Sarah Govett and is published by Marotte Books a new publisher specialising in comedy fiction. It is available now!

You need to get yourself a copy! Trust me I am a Librarian!

Seven Ghosts by Chris Priestley



Jake and the other finalists in a story-writing competition have been invited to a stately home for a tour like no other. As their guide leads them through grand rooms, hidden nooks and magnificent grounds, they are about to hear the stories of seven ghosts who haunt these walls. But strange shapes and shadows follow Jake as he journeys through the house. The tour guide’s behaviour becomes ever more suspicious. With each tale that he hears, Jake begins to feel more uneasy, and soon he will discover that something is very, very wrong …

Barrington Stoke
Seven Ghosts, written and illustrated by Chris Priestley

We at TeenLibrarian are big fans of both Barrington Stoke and Chris Priestley, so when I was given the chance to have a gallery of images from his latest novella for them I jumped at it! Seven Ghosts is a brilliantly creepy short story, telling seven short stories of ghosts haunting a particular house, that would be brilliant to read aloud to a class of any age (from 8+) or at bedtime (but you may need the lights on afterwards). Enjoy the slideshow…

Chris Priestley



Mother Tongue by Patricia Forde

MOTHER TONGUE is the standalone follow-up to the award-winning and critically acclaimed THE WORDSMITH (published in North America as THE LIST) by Galway native Patricia Forde.
After global warming came the Melting. Then came Ark.
The new dictator of Ark wants to silence speech for ever. But Letta is the wordsmith, tasked with keeping words alive. Out in the woods, she and the rebels secretly teach children language, music and art.
Now there are rumours that babies are going missing. When Letta makes a horrifying discovery, she has to find a way to save the children of Ark – even if it is at the cost of her own life.

Little Island
Mother Tongue by Patricia Forde, cover illustration by Elissa Webb

Little Island have been publishing some great books, unfortunately all ineligible for CKG because they don’t have offices outside of Eire, but definitely worth reading! Mother Tongue, and predecessor The Wordsmith, are both brilliantly devised stories based in a society founded at the end of the world, after flood waters have risen. Noah, the founder of Ark, has decreed that words were to blame for the situation people find themselves in – empty promises and lies of people in power, words instead of action – so all except the most functional 500 words are banned from use. The Wordsmith may store unused words until people can be trusted with them again (but will they ever?). Obviously the idea of storing words appealed to me greatly, so I jumped at the chance of being on the blog tour. The author Patricia Forde wrote a piece about Words for us:

The Need to Keep Words Alive.

I love dictionaries.
As a child, I was often to be found reading those impressive tomes looking for new words, big words, words to impress. Nowadays, as a writer, I still use dictionaries but now to look for smaller words, simpler words, words that are precise.
But what if we start to lose words?
If we don’t have a word for something can we conceive of it? Can we imagine it? And maybe, more importantly, do we still value that which it represents?
There was a thundering brouhaha some years ago when the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed words like kingfisher, acorn and cowslip from its list and replaced them with words like broadband, blog and voice mail. The dictionary is aimed at seven year olds. People felt that the dictionary was adding to the problem of children being alienated from nature. It seemed that the dictionary didn’t value the thrush, the weasel or the wren as much as it valued the grey world of bureaucracy. Committee, common sense and bullet points all had a place while much of the natural world was sent packing.

But, the dictionary argued, the words they chose to include were the words children were using. They had tracked contemporary usage and reflected their findings in their list of words.

How sad that is. As adults, we have to tolerate a diet of grey sludge when it comes to language. We have to talk about Brexit and hard drives and listen to people going on about journeys they’ve made that aren’t journeys at all, and hear them going forward with this that and the other thing and telling us all about it in bullet points. But children?

Their language should reflect the sacred time that we call childhood. I believe that it should be full of beavers and liquorice and droves of dwarves, elves and goblins. We need to keep those words alive because we need to keep that sense of wonder and awe alive.

Many of the words removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary had to do with nature. In this time of environmental crisis surely we need to make children more aware of nature and their natural habitat. It should concern us that if children no longer speak about bluebells or brambles it may be because children are becoming increasingly solitary and urban.

Every word in every language represents an entire archaeology and a history of what has gone before. I shudder to imagine a world like the one I created for The Wordsmith and Mother Tongue. A world where people have access to only five hundred words. Letta, my protagonist, says at one stage:

How can we dream if we don’t have words?

I would also ask how can we think? Words give us precision. In this chaotic world we’ve never needed clear thinking more than we do now. We need our leaders to use language like a laser rather than a slurry spreader. We need to cut through the noise, refuse to accept philosophy that can be written as a tweet because it has no complexity, and build a longer list of words – a list that includes all ideas, all languages, all dictionaries.
Let’s make a thundering brouhaha about that!

Patricia Forde

Words Taken Out of The Oxford Junior Dictionary:

Coronation, duchess, duke, emperor, empire, monarch, decade, carol, cracker, holly, ivy, mistletoe, dwarf, elf, goblin, abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, devil, vicar.

Adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.

Acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry,
blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow

Words put in:

Blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue.

Celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, common sense, debate, EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro.

Apparatus, food chain, incisor, square number, trapezium, alliteration, colloquial, idiom, curriculum, classify, chronological, block graph.

Mother Tongue, the sequel to The Wordsmith, has just been published by Little Island and they are both available from their website (thankyou for sending me copies of both!). Founded by Ireland’s first Children’s Laureate, Siobhán Parkinson, Little Island Books has been publishing books for children and teenagers since 2010. They specialise in publishing new Irish writers and illustrators, and also have a commitment to publishing books in translation.

For a sneak peek of Mother Tongue, download this free sample:

Clouds Cannot Cover Us

Clouds Cannot Cover Us: Poems by Jay Hulme

October will bring us this really powerful collection of poetry for teenagers, by young transgender poet Jay Hulme. Troika asked him to create a semi-autobiographical narrative, and included are reworked poems he wrote while at high school. He has said that when considering what to include he realised that what he’d wanted as a teenager, and what he wanted to give to teenagers, was the truth, and devised a two part story.

Being trans means that my life does feel almost like it comes in two halves. I have lived in this world as two people: The person I was before; angry, confused, violent, trying to find out what was wrong, trying to find my place in a world that didn’t want me. And the person I am now; proud, confident, at peace with myself, trying to forge a future to be proud of. With that in mind, I divided the book into two parts. The first half is filled with problems, anger, and confusion, and the poems in turn are often filled with industrial and urban imagery, dark, and claustrophobic. The second half is filled with hope, change, and growth – the poems here are often filled with natural imagery, they are lighter, softer, quieter – kinder.

Jay Hulme

No issue is out of bounds, anything he thought of as a teenager is included, some induce anger, some tears, some snorts of recognition, some a smile…and some all of the above. If I had to pick one favourite from each part, the one that made me stop and stare without moving on for a few minutes was his response to the Islamophobic attack at Christchurch earlier this year. That is towards the end of part 1, which is full of rage and sadness and despair at injustice. In part 2, possibly verging on soppy (which is very not me and yet it had me crying happy tears on a bus) is ‘Just the Small Things’ about the every day things that make you happy. Bonus mention though for ‘The Meaning of Stories’, which may resonate with many a reader, particularly I’d think readers of this blog (thank you so much Jay for letting me post it in full here):

THE MEANING OF STORIES


Perhaps it is true that none of my heroes exist,
summed up on a list entitled “fictional characters”.
My life lessons come from the mouths
of people paid to pretend they are someone they’re not,
but I can’t forget what they have taught me.


Because when words mean something, they stay,
no matter where they came from.
So who cares if I live my life by a line
issued from the mouth of Gandalf the Grey, on a film set,
it doesn’t mean it’s worth less than something
said by someone who actually existed.
Because attribution is overshadowed by meaning,
and the fact that these words stay with me
means more than the circumstances
under which they were uttered.


So if fiction is the foundation
on which I build my life, I can promise you
that my turrets will reach the sky,
before yours reach my dungeons.
Because fiction holds within it
the promise of a better world;
and I believe,
not just because I can,
but because I have to.

Jay Hulme
Jay Hulme

Jay Hulme is an award winning poet and performer from Leicester, Winner of Slambassadors 2015, and finalist in the 2016 Roundhouse Poetry Slam. He has recently branched out into children’s poetry, and his work was Highly Commended in the 2018 CLiPPA Awards. He also works as an ambassador for Inclusive Minds, promoting inclusion and diversity in children’s publishing, and doing sensitivity reads to ensure depictions of trans people in books are both accurate and unoffensive.

Thank you Jay for the pdf of Clouds Cannot Cover Us, coming soon from Troika.

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It

The problem with Wales, he thought, was that it was too far away.
But that was the point. To leave Southend behind. To get so far that no one would think to look for them there.

Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong.
Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things.
But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up.
Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.
When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them.
He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around!
Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…

Puffin
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It

Over on twitter last month, Louie Stowell wrote the review “If Jacqueline Wilson ganged up with Alan Garner and remixed A Monster Calls, with dragons. Powerful and deep.” and I was immediately sold. Brilliantly, Susie Day, the author of said book, then offered to send me one of her author copies and I bit off her hand! It was as brilliant as expected, with warmth and humour and fabulous characters in pretty dire but totally believable circumstances. After reading it, I asked Susie if she would answer some questions for the blog:

In your books you focus on “issues” that are relevant to lots of children but often missing from children’s fiction, always beautifully encased in a fabulous story. What prompted you to tackle toxic masculinity? ‘Issue books’ always sounds such a miserable label, doesn’t it? Like All Bran instead of Coco Pops. I hope my books are a blend of both (although less disgusting than that sounds). I’m always trying to write about children whose lives feel genuinely reflective of the world we live in – which means acknowledging the challenges of poverty, or grief, or homophobia. But it also means celebrating the ways we live through all that stuff: through daft jokes, and family, and love.
We’ve made big cultural strides in celebrating girls who want to do traditionally ‘masculine’ things, from playing pirates and getting muddy to careers in STEM. But boys choosing stereotypically ‘girly’ things – being creative or sensitive, or being open to emotional expression and relying on friends for support – remains a bigger sticking point. When I worked at a boarding school for teenagers we had some mental health training, which showed me some really shocking stats. Suicide is the #1 cause of death among men aged 20-49 in the UK. We’re letting all kids down if we don’t try to identify why that’s happening, and work to change it.

You generally have female protagonists, how different was your approach when writing Max? This question really made me think! Max is a character who often won’t admit what he really feels or thinks, and wants to put up a front. But I’ve written lots of girls like that too – like Sammie in The Secrets of Sam and Sam, or Clover in Pea’s Book of Holidays. Max has ideas that he associates that very strongly with being a boy. But Sammie or Billie Bright: they bump up against the ‘required’ behaviours of being a girl a lot too. It’s the same problem, but with different expectations.
The challenge Max has is that he thinks of himself in one way – big, tough, capable – and that doesn’t match his reality. The challenge for me as a writer is how to show that. But the characters I love to read about most are the ones who are figuring themselves out while we read them. I loved finding the visible symbols of that when he’s not a boy who would articulate it: the trainers he covets, buys, then throws away; the jumper his best friend’s mum lends him, that he keeps on wearing.

The scenes in the climbing centre were very convincing, did you have to do a lot of research or are you a climber? My girlfriend is laughing at this question. This book was written after we went on a walking holiday in Snowdonia together. She’s been walking there for years; I’m an experienced hiker but with a pretty emphatic fear of heights. She took me up a mountain called Glyder Fach, without mentioning it involved a scramble (sort of midway between a walk and a climb, where you need to use your hands but don’t need ropes). We got to the top – but I did cry on the way. That’s the mountain in the book, with a name change and a little geographical creativity.
She helped me out with understanding climbing technique, and I watched the climbers on the rocks alongside the road up to Pen Y Pass, the start of the main Snowdon route. But I will never be a climber!

Castell Y Gwynt on Glyder Fach in Snowdonia by Balochdesign

Have you had much feedback from children about the story? What do they pick up on the most? Max as a character: that’s what kids seem to connect with. A friend of mine’s son was running round the park being ‘brave’, because that’s what Max is. I think the rising stakes help turn the pages too.

What kind of events do you enjoy doing most with children/in schools? I love school visits, whether it’s a KS2 assembly or classroom workshops. Like most authors, I’ve also done festivals to a roomful of babies, surprise 13-year-olds, and three people who are asleep, which certainly hones the improvisational skills…
Assembly-style sessions are interactive, with live storytelling and games. I’m always – I mean this genuinely, I’ve never not had this experience – awed by the creativity that’s waiting to be uncapped. But I think it’s important that I’m not there as a teacher. An author visit can really support curriculum, and I often tailor sessions to particular objectives, like reading for pleasure or editing. But it should also inspire in ways that are bigger and broader: that can just celebrate why reading and writing matters, and why books are relevant for all of us.
I don’t offer CPD for staff, but you might find my books, and my presence, useful for SRE.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to? I’ve just inhaled Louie Stowell’s The Dragon in the Library (7-9), which is all joy: clever, inclusive, highly-illustrated and a smart way to persuade non-readers they might like books after all. Gabby Hutchinson Crouch’s Darkwood is a pure Pratchett-for-kids fairytale: great for advanced middle- grade readers who like talking spiders and laughing out loud. And I’m in the middle of A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby, which is gently breaking my heart, while also making me really happy to see fiction about gaming. More please.

What’s next for you? Something I can’t talk about yet, sorry!
I’ve also written a short story for a new Doctor Who anthology called The Target Storybook, about the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) from the classic series. Every book I’ve written has a Doctor Who reference, so it was pretty sweet not having to find a place to fit that in for once. The book’s out in October, and I can’t wait to read the other stories.

Susie Day

Huge thanks to Susie for the copy of the book and the responses for the blog!

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It is out now!

Jelly by Clare Rees

Martha and her friends have been drifting on a giant killer jellyfish since sea levels rose and the world ended.
Life is gloopy, toxic and full of tentacles. It’s also really boring.
More than anything, Martha wants to escape – but what ’s waiting for her on the shore? She doesn’t know it, but life is about to get much stickier …

Chicken House
Jelly by Clare Rees

When I read the blurb for this book I thought “this sounds so ridiculous that it just has to be good”, and it was a really entertaining read. I was most taken with how convincing the teens’ reactions to everything going on were, and what they dreamed of for the future. What I didn’t realise, until I was sent this piece of writing for the blog from Clare, was just how much it was influenced by the teenagers that she works with! What an amazing way to write a book!

Writing a book alongside your intended audience is brilliant fun. But it can also have surprising consequences. Jelly started out as a teaching resource, as a way of getting my students engaged with their creative writing lessons. I wrote alongside them, but also shaped sections around their needs- so I would often start lessons by giving students extracts from my book to correct. I filled the extracts with common errors for the students to find and as they identified them we discussed how the errors could be fixed and improved. Identifying and improving those mistakes in their own work would become the lesson focus for students. When the book was published my students had a question and answer session with me. When they asked these questions none of them had read the complete book- so their questions are based entirely on the extracts used during their lessons.
My students’ questions:

  1. [Asked by a student called James] Is there a character called James? If so, was it based on me? If not, why not? Yes there is! The character is not based on you, sadly. When I started writing the book I choose the name because I didn’t then teach anybody called James. Using the book in a school, it was particularly hard to find names which were appropriate for the characters in the book but which were not going to cause problems with my students. The main character, Martha, has the same name as my daughter. This is because when I was writing the book in the evenings she was very little and wanted me to sit outside her room until she fell asleep. Therefore the name, ‘Martha’, was particularly on my mind as I wrote. One of the teachers in the book, Dr Jones, is also named after one of our Biology teachers. While the character is very different from our teacher, Year 9 wanted the character to have the name of the teacher who had taught them in the lesson before mine.
  2. What motivated you to try and get it published? Boredom. I did not go through the traditional publishing routes, but entered a competition [The Times/Chickenhouse competition] at the end of the Autumn term in 2017. I was sitting in a coffee shop with a cake as I finished writing the book. I didn’t really know what to do with the book, so I googled ‘competitions’, found this one, and decided I might as well enter. I didn’t bother sending the book off to any agents or publishers, so it has never actually been rejected. I am also now a firm believer in entering competitions!
  3. Did you ever experience writers’ block, and if so, how did you overcome it? I don’t believe in writers’ block. I think it’s exactly the same feeling you get at the start of a big piece of homework. Nobody wants to write, and at the end of a long teaching day I definitely don’t want to sit down and do any work. But if you sit down and start, somehow it gets better and words do appear. Each evening I sat down and did some writing I always felt glad I had- however difficult it was to start.
  4. Is there an event in your life which inspired you to write this? I was teaching our current Year 9s creative writing (back when they were in Year 7) and they were a bit stuck on the planning. So I decided to plan a book for them at the start of a lesson, but then I thought it looked quite interesting so I went off and wrote it. That week I had seen two interesting things:
    • A youtube clip in which a member of Donald Trump’s team said that sea levels rising wasn’t a problem, because it had already happened in the Bible and we’d been fine.
    • I was reading a Viking saga in which a kraken was described as being like an island which people could live on
  5. Have you always been interested in mythical sea creatures? In no way. But I do have a phobia of shellfish, which I have received hypnotherapy for. When discussing this book, the publishers wanted to meet in a seafood restaurant because they thought it was hilarious and topical. It took me until after the main course before I told them that crab and lobster shells terrify me. Also, my editor wanted me to draw a picture of the kriks for her [my crustacean monsters]. Unfortunately I found them so disgusting that I was unable to do this. At some points while writing I needed to check what crabs and lobsters look like. Again, I was unable to look at pictures so had to
    get my son to look at them for me while I asked him questions.
  6. What do the characters do when they get their periods? Yes, as in most fiction this is not mentioned (despite the fact that I know most women and teenage girls spend a significant part of their life thinking about it!). I did consider this. In the old days I understand that women often used to use rags. There are rags mentioned in the book, so I assumed that they would use these.
  7. If it’s been climate change do the characters need suncream? Yes they do – although not all of the characters have white skin, so they don’t all need loads. I haven’t included this information in the book, but I had planned for the jellyfish slime to have suncream-like properties. It would also work as a moisturiser. I imagined the characters would smear it on their skin to protect themselves from the sun.
  8. You changed the kriks [crustacean monsters]. Why? When I wrote them in school they were more humanoid. My editors pointed out to me that when the central characters get into battle with them, this means it’s like they’re killing humans. I hadn’t wanted to write a book about murder, so I thought I’d change the monsters!
  9. Why did you let Dr Jones live? [Originally Dr Jones, the Biology teacher, was killed in the book because my students wanted the character to die] Actually I needed the character. She was so crucial to the story that when I killed her off I had to invent another, very similar character who lived until the end. My editor pointed out it would be easier if Dr Jones just lived. Plus, I have to share a staffroom with the real Biology teacher and didn’t want her to be cross with me.
  10. Do you think your book could happen in reality? I hope not! Giant crustaceans would be a very, very bad thing. However, sea levels are rising and we’re not planning for climate change in the way that I think we should be. I think that is going to result in people dying, and I think it is going to change the world. We are also going to have to change the way we treat the world, as our place in it is going to be affected.
Clare Rees

Huge thanks to Chicken House books for sending me a copy, Nina for organising the guest post, and Clare for writing it!

Jelly is out now!